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19 September 2010


David Clayton is a painter and teacher, who is the artist-in-residence at St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH. More of his artwork and writing can be found on his web log, The Way of Beauty, and its essay archive. His television program, also called The Way of Beauty, can be watched here.

His biography can be read here.


DM: Few Catholic religious artists would deny the importance of tradition, precedent and history in their work. Yet their interpretations of Catholic art history vary. What people, artworks, events or ideas from the past are especially important to your understanding of what Catholic religious art is, and what it ought to be?
DC: If I wanted to summarise it as best I can, it would be as follows. First, all Catholic visual art is rooted in the liturgy. So at the core of her artistic traditions are her liturgical art traditions. These are, according to Pope Benedict the iconographic, the Gothic and the Baroque at its best. They are different styles because reveal different aspects of man. I would characterise these as follows: the iconographic tradition, portrays redeemed or Eschatological Man; the Baroque portrays Historical Man - that is, fallen man; and the Gothic portrays the transition between the two by degrees – it is the art of pilgrimage. So in the dynamic of prayer Eschatological (iconographic) art, takes directly to heaven, it starts and finishes there, as it were. The Baroque on the other hand starts in a fallen world, but from there directs our thoughts to heaven. While the starting point may be different in each case, but what all three traditions have in common is their goal: the contemplation of heavenly things.

Catholic religious art, which we may categorise more broadly as that which has a specifically religious purpose, that may be devotional prayer as well as liturgical, is rooted in these traditions.

This does not rule out the possibility of a new tradition developing. There is, to my knowledge, no tradition that has a style modelled on Original Man - that is, man before the Fall.

I should say also that iconographic art is not just the Eastern styles that we are accustomed to seeing today. There is a strong tradition of Western styles that conform to the prototype, such as Celtic art, Carolingian, Ottonian and Romanesque.
DM: What Catholic religious art of the past is most worthy of imitation for a Catholic religious artist today?
DC: Pick the great artists from these styles. This would be a matter of personal choice but for the Baroque I would choose Velazquez or George de la Tour maybe. For the Gothic I would choose Fra Angelico and Duccio. For the iconographic, I love the Romanesque illuminated manuscript style, or the style of Mt Sinai in the 11th century.

There is a saying that is apropos: all the great art movements began on the altar. So if we think of the Baroque, it began as the art of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and as liturgical art form. But from this foundation, it became the style that characterised all art, sacred and profane (e.g. landscapes and portraits) for the era.
DM: What is least worthy of imitation?
DC:Well the quick answer is any that doesn't correspond to these traditions, such as much 20th century art. However, I would avoid also as models for imitation and for different reasons: 19th century naturalistic art, such as Bougeureau or the Pre-Raphaelites; and the work of the Mannerists and High Renaissance artists such as Michaelangelo or Raphael (I mention these because that might surprise some people). I don't rate the 19th century stuff at all, and I would keep clear of the High Renaissance stuff because this was still forming the styles that reached their culmination in the Baroque, a hundred years later - and unless you understand how they are different, it might cause difficulties.
DM: You speak of three praiseworthy liturgical art traditions: iconographic, Gothic and Baroque, and you have been trained in both the Byzantine iconographic and the Baroque painterly traditions. Do you think that artists should attempt to combine any of these traditions with each other, or ought they remain distinct?
DC: If one remembers that the path between heaven and earth, if I can put it that way, is a continuum, it is possible for us to be raised to the heavenly state, i.e. to partake of the divine nature, by degrees here on earth, although it cannot happen fully until we die, by God's grace. This suggests that it is legitimate to use some aspects of the Baroque and the iconographic. This is precisely what we see in the Gothic. As the level of naturalism increased the new visual vocabulary was being developed. Gothic artists such as Fra Angelico used these features selectively depending upon what theological point they wanted to communicate. Sometimes, for example, he would use single point perspective, which we are accustomed to seeing in Western naturalistic, non-iconographic, art; sometimes he used the multiview perspective that we see in icons. However, as this suggests, this combination of styles, should be done with discernment. It is not simply a matter of taste. The visual vocabularies of each tradition are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary. So there is room for combination, but it will only work to produce coherent sentences, if I can extend the metaphor, if the syntax and vocabulary of each tradition is fully understood.

So it can be done badly. If you look at many (not all) of the icons produced in Russia and Greece that were produced after Peter the Great and Catherine the Great brought in the values of the Enlightenment, you see degenerate forms due to a poorly understood combination of these traditions. Iconography in the East didn't really find its way again until the mid-twentieth century incidentally.
DM: You write that iconographic art is not exclusively Eastern. In your own work as an iconographer and teacher, it seems that you mostly use Eastern styles. What do you think is the proper place of this Eastern iconography within the Latin Church?
DC: A point to remember before I answer this is that it is that all the iconographic styles contain the elements that make it an icon. Because the icon is identified with the East today, we tend to assume that many features that are iconographic are also restricted to the Eastern form. Also, there is the problem that exists in all discussion of art that as soon as you classify any artistic form and give it a name, e.g. Gothic, then it gives the impression that people at the time consciously worked within the bounds of the classification. This is sometimes the case, but more often it is not. Usually there the edges are blurred between styles. So within the bounds of iconographic art (i.e. Eschatological art), for which there are clear boundaries, there are subdivisions of style and form where the edges are blurred. So Romanesque art developed from contact with the Greek-style icons, which are more naturalistic than the Ottonian styles that existed in the West previously. This immediately blurs the picture. Does this make Romanesque an Eastern form? Most art historians would say not. It is very characteristic of the West. So historically within the Church, there has always been a lot of cross-pollination of styles historically and although regional styles are recognisable, they have more in common than they have things that differentiate them.

Now, finally, to answer your questions. In my own work I was trained by an English iconographer called Aidan Hart (who in my opinion is producing the best icons around today). He is self-taught and his style is most influenced, I would say, by the naturalistic iconographic style of the Greeks of about 1000 years ago, but he studies the whole tradition deeply and in his methods draws on Russian aspects as well. Living in England, he has also been keen to develop an English iconographic style, so he draws also, though more selectively, on those styles that were English and iconographic, and is keen to paint English saints, especially the early Celtic ones, such as St. Winifred (whose well at Holywell - the British Lourdes - is under 10 miles from where I grew up).

Naturally, being English myself and having Aidan as a teacher, I will draw heavily on his style. However, I have incorporated even more than Aidan those forms that are Western. So for example, I will use a lot geometric pattern in the border (which is something that interests me greatly anyway). Also, I have done a lot of work based upon Romanesque illuminated manuscripts, which are thoroughly Western. Having said that, I like the icons of Gregory Kroug, a 20th century Russian iconographer, as well as some of the classic Russian icons from 1400-1700 a great deal and quite often will just copy one of those, or aspects of them if it suits what I am required to do.

Also, when I do commissions, I am bound also by the requirements of the patron, and this will influence strongly what I produce. If we look at the commissions I have done, the St. Luigi Scrosoppi at the London Oratory was naturalistic and Western in style (and not iconographic). The Pluscarden crucifixion was based upon the San Damiano in Italy, which I have heard described as Romanesque in style, but also I have been told that it was painted in Syria, so I'm not sure where that sits. The Maryvale Sacred Heart is, like the London Oratory painting, Western in style and not iconographic in the sense that it is not representing Eschatological Man. The Sacred Heart in the chapel at Thomas More College is based upon a Russian Blessing Christ, but I have naturalised the form slightly, and added a lot of geometric pattern, as well as a Sacred Heart, which is not in the Russian lexicon. The Madonna and Child in the Thomas More College chapel is based upon a 13th century Sienese image, which would be considered Gothic in period (although really could as easily be considered as a Western iconographic variant, if you look only at the form). The crucifixion at the Thomas More College chapel, which is 6 feet long and hangs above the altar, is based upon a Gothic Franciscan cross and has a lot of Western patterning, and a greater degree of suffering that one would normally see in the iconographic styles. It would be considered Gothic, I think.
DM: In the creation of religious art, how important are a) the artist: his intentions, prayers, beliefs &c; b) the subject, content and arrangement of the artwork; and c) the materials and the artistic methods used to create it?
DC:To answer this I need to consider two things - first how important are these to the artist in order to produce a work of art; and second, once the work of art has been produced, do we take these things into consideration in trying to judge whether or not it is good or bad?

First: if you are giving advice to artist, then you would say that all these things are very important because you are always likely to increase the chances of producing good work if you take these things into account. In this sense the artist is no different from any of us in pursuing any activity. You use reason and experience and knowledge and the best materials to produce the most beautiful object possible, most suited to its purpose; and pray for guidance in all of these activities.

Second: once the art has been produced, however, then a) becomes irrelevant in the consideration of whether or not it is good. You judge it on its merits as an object. God can inspire whomsoever he pleases and there's no accounting for who that might be and also who might respond. Sometimes it can be people who have no faith, and little apparent virtue in all areas of their lives. But a good painting is a good painting, whoever produces it and however they did it.

b) remains important in the judgement of whether or not art is good and true and beautiful

c) remains important too, in the sense that what it is made of will contribute to the aesthetic appeal, but apart from that the greatest consideration is whether or not it is going to last any length of time. To use an extreme example, an image made out of ice cream could, in principle, be just as good by virtue of its appearance as in image made out of wood, paint and gold. However, I wouldn't choose the ice cream one because it has no durability and would melt in 5 minutes. But the fact that it is made out of ice cream doesn't in itself mitigate against the possibility of it being a holy image worthy of veneration (while it is still solid!).

[I thank David Clayton for his thoughtful answers to my questions and for his time. This is part of a series of interviews that I am conducting on the subject of Catholic religious art. The images that accompany these interviews remain copyright their creators, and are used here with permission. As goes without saying, I do not necessarily share the opinions that the subjects of these interviews express.]

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